As the first Indian female newsreader and radio jockey, Saeeda Bano left behind a pioneering legacy. Shahana Raza, her granddaughter who translated her memoir, Off the Beaten Track, remembers her as an emotionally resilient person in a chat with Sucheta Dasgupta
Aside from being an Indian radio pioneer, who broke bread with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, your grandmother was one of India’s first independent Muslim women. Not only was she living by herself in the 1940s, in the 1930s, she drove a car unchaperoned. This is a freedom not available to most Indian women, Hindu or Muslim, even today. Did Saeeda Bano consider herself a feminist?
Did Saeeda Bano consider herself a feminist? I don’t know that for sure, but she most definitely knew she was ahead of her times, that the life she led was Dagar se Hatt kar, off the beaten track, which is why she used it as the title of her autobiography.
Your grandmother was more sporting than studious. She was not, in that sense, the typical intellectual feminist. Would you consider her a rebel in her household? How well was she loved by her family?
Relatively speaking, compared with her older siblings, Saeeda Bano was definitely the rebel in her family. The fact that she was allowed to be herself, especially by her father, went a long way in filling her with confidence and also proves they loved her for who she was.
In the book, she refers to herself as a girl with “a strange blend of complicated traits in her personality'. Yes, she was more sporting than studious, but she also read voraciously. After marriage she receives both love and importance from her husband’s family as well, especially from her father-in-law Justice Mohammed Raza.
What, to your mind, did she have to give up in order to lead the life that she did and accomplish what she did?
In order to achieve what she did, Saeeda Bano had to, first and foremost, give up the emotional comfort and the financial security that comes with being part of a loving joint family. Embracing uncertainties, she forsook the familiarity and convenience of living in an easygoing city like Lucknow and went off to Delhi at the time of Partition in August 1947, tackling courageously the various challenges that came her way during this crucial time in history. To lead her life according to the dictates of her own conscience, she schooled her heart to face social disapproval.
One of the most charming episodes in the book is to do with Saeeda’s friendship with the singer and courtesan, Begum Akhtar. This friendship was forged despite the then prevailing custom of women observing purdah from courtesans. Surprisingly, her interactions with Akhtari met with little resistance at her in-laws’ and she managed to create from them a family tie. Was her husband’s family relatively liberal or was it due to her personal charisma that this became possible?
Bit of both, I would say. Initially, there was some feeble, lukewarm resistance from her family. Ultimately she managed to persuade her husband Abbas Raza to visit Akhtari Bai’s kotha.
Was it Saeeda who broke the ice between lawyer Ishtiaq Abbasi’s acquaintances and Akhtari, thus clearing the path for their eventual marriage?
I don’t think Saeeda Bano had much to do with breaking the ice between Ishtiaq Abbasi’s acquaintances and Akhtari Bai. But after Akhtari approached my grandmother at the radio station and said, “Bittan, please get me married to Ishtiaq Abbasi sahab,” she took the bull by the horns. In her inimitably bold style, she called Ishtiaq bhai over for tea and candidly asked him to marry Akhtari! The rest, as they say, is history.
There is a documentary on Begum Akhtar called Hai Akhtari, on YouTube for which director Kalidas Swaminathan interviewed my grandmother. In that, you can hear Saeeda Bano narrate this entire incident in the most delightful manner, exactly as it is written up in this book.
While reading the book, I noticed that when Saeeda examines the relationship of her lover, three-time Delhi mayor Nuruddin Ahmed, with his English first wife, Billy, she concludes that it had faced challenges due to Billy’s not belonging to his own culture of compliant, coquettish or circumspect, women. But she herself was neither of those. Why this inconsistency?
Since I never had the opportunity to see my grandmother with Nuruddin Ahmed sahab, I can’t say what she was like with him as a woman. Perhaps she was coquettish and felt vulnerable around him. People do have various sides to their personality. How we interact with our children is not what we are like with our spouse or our parents. Even headstrong forthright women can be submissive when they choose to be!
What is your earliest memory of your grandmother?
My earliest memory of my grandmother is when we came from Lucknow to Delhi during our school vacations to visit her. We would meet up with our uncles, aunts and cousins and spend a lot of time eating all sorts of delicious foodstuff at India International Centre and go on these enjoyable family picnics to Lodhi Garden. She loved picnics! I also remember her cook Shakur Baba vividly.
What has been your own career trajectory? Why do you think she chose you to translate her book?
Over the years, I’ve had to transform myself professionally into several avatars. After starting out as a VT editor for programmes and documentaries, I moved to news editing, then reporting, before I finally settled down as video producer and freelance writer.
Around the time she asked me to translate her book we had grown quite close, without really realising it. We had managed, by default, to forge a strong one-on-one bond and learnt to accept the not-so-palatable sides of our personalities as well. If she ticked me off, I couldn’t go running to any parent. I was living alone and working in Delhi. If I triggered her off, there was really no one she could complain to about my behaviour. With no other adult to help us navigate our relationship with one another, we grew closer.
What, according to you, is the strength of this book?
The appeal of the book, in my opinion lies in the brutal honesty with which she visits the past, confronts her own experiences and decides, even when she comes face to face with a painful raw emotion, that yes, I want to speak about this. She could have chosen to leave some hurtful incidents out of the book. But she doesn’t. As I mentioned in the translator’s note, Simone de Beauvoir said in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, “The writer is a traitor to his despair as soon as he writes a book.”